Figuratively speaking, there are several ears propped to a door, eavesdropping on a conversation pivotal to Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing; a story about love; real, new and pretended, that began before the messenger arrives with his news. Two very different couples cling to each other or push one another away during five acts of masked balls, sighing under balconies, hysterics, a make-shift death and resurrection, attempts to compose poetry and finally, a feast. The lovers of Messina: innocent Hero, fiery Beatrice and their gallant knights, weak Claudio and comic Benedict stumble through abundant trickery, taking very different paths to reach the same goal: a happily-ever-after ending.
Hero, though one of the main characters of the play is a silent presence for the entire First and Second Acts, given a voice only when others speak about or for her. She is first introduced not by name, but as “the daughter of Signior Leonato”, described by Claudio as a “modest young lady” and “the sweetest lady I ever laid mine eyes upon”. Hero is described by everyone as beautiful, kind and gentle. Always she was the dutiful daughter. When her father, Leonato, instructs Hero that she must consent to a wedding proposal by Don Pedro, a man she barely knows, she happily agrees. Leonato says, “Daughter remember that I told you. If the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know the answer.”
In truth, Hero and her father realize later, she had not conceded to marrying Don Pedro, but Claudio. Her willingness to transport her hand from one man to another shows that it is not in her own interests that she acts, shows that her happiness is not as important as her father’s will. Claudio can declare victory, the wedding is confirmed, Hero is to be married and still she says nothing; content to be spoken for by Beatrice. “Speak cousin, or, if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss and let him not speak either.” says Beatrice.
Hero is the victim in this play, the loser in a situation she was not a part of, the target of anger directed at her father and fianc. Don John, the only clear villain in the play, sought to upset Leonato and cheapen Claudio’s prize. Hero was the most virtuous amongst the characters but is horribly slandered of being promiscuous on her own wedding in front of everyone she knew. The man that was to be her husband shouted accusations to which she could not defend herself because she was a woman and always suspected of being false. Yet, despite the horror of this wedding ceremony and worse, being scorned by her father whom she had always sought to please, because of those empty words, when told by her father to do so, she happily married her cruel accuser.
The exact opposite of Hero in every way is Beatrice, her rambunctious cousin. Beatrice lives in Leonato’s house and shares a room with Hero. While her cousin is the image of an innocent maiden, Beatrice has many of the characteristics of men and qualities that most other women did not have. While Hero was quiet for most of the play, Beatrice dominates most conversations. She appears to be a strong woman and is radically independent, swearing she will never get married in a time when marriage was the most important and consequential aspect of a woman’s life. “Well niece,” said Leonato’s brother. “I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.” To which she replied, “Not till God make men of some other metal than Earth.”
These two very different cousins are very close and more like sisters. Beatrice describes Hero, much like a everyone else does, as a quiet, sweet girl. She appears to be the older cousin and certainly the wisest. Beatrice is very protective of her cousin. After Hero’s abortive when she was declared a “rotten orange” by the misguided Claudio, Beatrice remained true to her cousin, unlike her rash uncle. Beatrice declared in certainty that her cousin had been wronged.
Claudio is the gallant soldier just arrived from the wars in which he had distinguished himself. He can be considered both one of the heroes and villains of the play. He is a hero as Shakespeare deemed him worthy of a happy ending but also a villain for his treatment of Hero. It was proven very easy to trick Claudio as he accepted first Don John’s insinuation that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself. Claudio condemns not the Prince’s alleged deception but the feminine wiles he believes to have inspired it. He says, “Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent, for beauty is a witch against whose charms faith melteth into blood.”
Claudio is tricked yet again by Don John into believing the figure that he saw in Hero’s window to be his modest bride and allowed no other interpretation. However, had the circumstances been different and his young fianc not be falsely accused, denouncing her and so thoroughly insulting her on her wedding day was dishonorable. Claudio has a very weak character.
Despite her being, or perhaps because she was, so much more outspoken than most other women Bene*censored* fell in love with Beatrice long before Hero and Claudio ever met. It is out of the unfortunate couple’s dead love and disastrous wedding that Beatrice and Bene*censored* discover their love. She used her newfound love with Bene*censored* to her advantage, demanding that he kill Claudio. Bene*censored* and Claudio along with Don Pedro are very good friends. It is in Bene*censored* that Claudio first confides his love for Hero.
As for the relationships of these four characters, they are very different as well. From the beginning it seems that quiet Hero, the ideal young lady and strong, honorable Claudio are to fall in love and get married. On the other hand, Beatrice and Bene*censored* appear to have a never-ending conflict that hints at a previous relationship; one that somehow ended in anger. Beatrice says, “Indeed, my Lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice. Therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.” Bene*censored* and Beatrice quarrel in a skirmish of wits which is merely a facade of their underlying attraction to each other, and an ongoing struggle of recognizing their love. Bene*censored* actually does admit that he is attracted to Beatrice. “There’s her cousin, an she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May does the last of December.”
Beatrice is a strong woman firm in her ideas of not succumbing to a man, therefore becoming his wife. “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me,” says she to Bene*censored*. Bene*censored* is as firm in his belief of not marrying a woman. He claimed that he will never trust a woman and that if he does get married, “…hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me.”
While Beatrice and Bene*censored* banter, Claudio and his prize seem to be very much in love. But the circumstances that lead to a marriage between Hero and Claudio make it impossible that there is real love between them. In the play, the only conversation Claudio and Hero have is at their wedding when he denounced her and made public her accusation of promiscuity. Claudio’s attraction to Hero is strictly superficial; Claudio knows nothing of Hero other than her reputation for being modest and what his eyes can see of her beauty. It is also possible that Claudio was attracted by her dowry. He asked Don Pedro, “Hath Leonato any son, my lord?” Don Pedro replies that Hero is “his only heir.” An interpretation of this might be that Claudio’s attraction to Hero was rooted in a more tangible things than Hero’s virtue.
As gentle Hero conquers the romantic heart of young Claudio, Beatrice and Bene*censored*, seem destined to be enemies. Through trickery and eavesdropping, the two male protagonists exchange personalities with respect to our heroines, Hero and Beatrice. While Bene*censored* loves Beatrice, writes poetry for her and attempts to woo her, Claudio scorns Hero though with real anger and not the mock anger shared by Beatrice and Bene*censored*. The two female protagonists do not exchange personalities but rather situations; Beatrice no had a new love and the prospect of marriage, while it no longer seemed that Hero would ever be married.
We can imagine the lives of the lovers of Messina as they were before the play began and we can infer how they will be when the last curtain closes; it could be a happy scene. Claudio has wronged Hero, killed her; out of her death and rebirth there might be a new love. Beatrice and Bene*censored* may very well talk themselves mad but they do share a real love, one that arose from the ashes of a pretended love.